When I was younger, a question that I was often asked was about what I wanted to become when I grew up. As was the case with most children, I remember my answer changing fairly often with every phase that I went through. Some of the responses I remember giving included ‘veterinarian’, ‘journalist’, ‘psychologist’, ‘novelist’. There were even ‘rock star’ and ‘international tennis player’ on the list at some point, though the words tasted of audacity to me even then and they fast faded away. No matter what profession I named, however, something that I distinctly remember is how each dream, each possibility was constructed over a rock-solid belief that my life would unfold a certain way—that I would be successful, that I would be rich, that my life and career would be extraordinary.
Upon finishing school at The Valley at few years ago—at which point, my response to ‘the question’ was firmly parked in ‘psychologist’ territory—I made a choice seemingly contrary to this lifelong belief and aspiration. I started college in a local university in Bengaluru. It was a university that wasn’t particularly highly ranked, nor particularly terrible either. But it was the only one that I had applied to, and this decision was one that received a large amount of flak, from friends, family, and teachers alike. I had received an exceptionally good result in the class XII exams, and having always been an ambitious, driven, self-motivated student, many felt that I was compromising or ‘settling’ by choosing an easy option. I responded to the many, many questions that came my way with the truth—that, having been in boarding school, away from family and a home for so long, I wanted to stay back, for a while, in a city that I knew, with people whom I loved and found comfort with, instead of having to start over again in a new place. While my conviction about my choice eventually silenced the questioners, I was sure that many of them were left puzzled about the startling ordinariness of my reasons. To be completely honest, so was I.
Nevertheless, I finished three years of an undergraduate course in psychology —right on track with the plan that I had started out with—thoroughly disillusioned with the Indian higher education system, but also completely in love with this city and the independence that this life afforded me. The dream still burnt strong—of a successful, rich, extraordinary life. The dissatisfaction that I had experienced with the low level of academic rigour in my college, had me setting my eyes upon universities abroad. I wanted to fly; I wanted to thrive; and yes, a part of me wanted to prove to all of my questioners that I was not compromising, I was not settling, I was not dissolving into the ordinary.
And so, I arrived back at The Valley, hoping to spend some time working there while I simultaneously prepared for the various exams and processes required for colleges abroad. I had loved the few years that I had spent at the school, and hoped that I would be able to do some meaningful work here—give back, in some sense— while I prepared to ultimately leave the country, hopefully to never return. In my mind, I was clear about the fact that The Valley was a rest stop— albeit an engaging and satisfying one—on my way to finally arriving at my extraordinary life.
Now, I have always been a planner. All my life, I have relied on the dependability of well-thought out plans. There were colourful little post-its stuck in neat, precise patterns on the wall of my hostel room, as I had planned and prepped for my board exams when still in school. There were notebooks filled with scribbled notes in different coloured ink, written and rewritten with edits and details as I researched foreign university programmes throughout college. And now, there were spreadsheets on my laptop with colour-coded cells and formulae as I compared financials and expenses and other details of what my life abroad would look like, once I finally got there. Up until that point in my life, I had firmly believed that if I was able to do just the right amount of research, just the right amount of preparation, then moving from what I dreamed of, to its actual, tangible manifestation, would just be a series of simple, straightforward steps. Extraordinary was not only possible, it was inevitable.
It was as I was thus diverted—my focus on my spreadsheets and post-its and notebooks with endless scribbles— too busy (or too naive, perhaps) to even contemplate the possibility of anything else, that it snuck up on me, taking firm root, building, growing, until I had no choice but to eventually sit back and face the reality that stared me in my face. Six, seven months into teaching at The Valley—this engaging and satisfying rest stop on the way to my extraordinary life—I realised, suddenly, that I didn’t actually want to leave.
I loved teaching. I loved the inimitable balance of structure and spontaneity that teaching allowed. I loved waking up every morning, secure in the fact that I knew what was planned for the day, and simultaneously excited by the myriad possibilities in which it could actually unfold. I loved walking into a classroom prepared with notes and lesson plans, and walking out inspired by the responses I received from my students. And it wasn’t just the teaching—I found that I loved teaching in The Valley, specifically, in a space that allowed you to seamlessly transition what you do for work into how you live your life. I loved beginning my day with music; dining with a community of teachers and students; going for walks and breathing in fresh air and birdsong; setting aside time to reflect on and talk about questions larger than myself; feeling intellectually, creatively, spiritually stimulated and satisfied every single day. I loved it all—everything that this life had to offer, the heartbreak and the healing in equal measure. This, this love, I had not planned for at all.
Three years I stayed put. Two whole years more than I had planned to, I stayed on in The Valley, delaying applications and exams as much as I could. I moved onto the campus; took up house-parent responsibilities for one of the senior girls’ hostels; enmeshed myself further and further in this life, contrary to all plans. Despite it all, I could feel a voice, some sort of unresolved anxiety, grating on my nerves from the inside out—I had to leave, I had to at least try to leave, because had I not promised myself, and so many others around me, much more? Had I not promised everyone an extraordinary life?
And so, in my third year of teaching, I finally gave in and registered myself for the exams; spent tedious months labouring over college applications; spent a few more nerve-wracking ones waking up in the middle of the night, anxious and sweating and jittery, refreshing application announcement portals over and over again. My heart was breaking, and I could not decide what was causing it more—the pain of leaving behind a home and a life that I was becoming more and more convinced of every day was what I really, truly wanted; or the worry and impending shame that I believed would accompany the possibility of not getting accepted into any of the universities that I was applying to. Here I had found family, community, passion, meaning; there, I would finally forge for myself that life that I had always dreamt of, the successful one, the rich one, the one that would prove to myself and everyone else that, yes, I was worthy of the extraordinary.
The universe, it seemed, had other plans. Come June 2018, I had been rejected from every single university that I had applied to. I had also left The Valley and had started work elsewhere, at a start-up co-founded by two dear friends of mine. I was, in no uncertain terms, distraught—everything that I had planned for, that I had hoped and dreamed and worked for, was disappearing in front of my eyes. I spent months going to work, coming home, and crying my heart out, imagining all the possibilities and lives that had now been shut to me. I didn’t pick up a pen for almost a year (my answer to ‘the question’ had evolved into ‘writer’ by that point, and I had applied to and been rejected by universities for Creative Writing programs). There was no question in my mind—at this point, my life had, firmly and definitively, dissolved into the ordinary.
A couple of months before the commencement of the new academic year, not even a whole twelve months since I had left The Valley, I received a phone call—they were in need of teachers, and they would like to have me back. And so, in May 2019, I returned—nervous, and excited, and somehow far more settled than I remember having ever felt before. Staying on so long the first time had not been part of the plan; returning so soon after leaving had not been part of it, either. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of deep satisfaction, deep contentment, in coming back. There was no more running, no more chasing, no more planning to be done anymore—I was home.
For anyone looking in from the outside, my life is ordinary—I am twenty-five years old; I married young, and to my high school sweetheart; I teach middle-schoolers, while simultaneously pursuing a masters in Literature through correspondence. I work a job with fixed hours, one that offers no bonuses or promotions or other similar tangible benefits. I come home and do household chores; argue a little about expenses with my husband; usually fall into bed exhausted at the end of the day on weekdays, and try and catch up with friends and family over lunches and dinners on the weekends.
To me, though, every day I live is sprinkled with a little magic. I wake up secure in what I have planned for the day—a poem; a handout; a module on the Mesopotamian Civilisation—and excited about all the myriad possibilities in which it could unfold (beautiful pastiches; conversations about the state of the world today through the eyes of an eleven-yearold; a mini replica of a city-state emerging underneath a tamarind tree). My day begins with music or poetry, or theatre, or just silence sometimes, but always, always something special. I dine with a community of teachers and students, where I walk in to the most fascinating conversations—from politics and current news, to the latest fight between two of my students—and walk out to the most fascinating sights—sandals in the shoeracks outside the dining hall filled with freshly-fallen akash mallige, awaiting their respective owners. I go for walks and breathe in fresh air and birdsong; stop by the paddy fields to admire the big, blooming sunflowers; stop by the bund to take in the sounds of rushing water after the rains; and stop by the games field to admire the spectacular sunsets that paint the skies here in the evenings. I spend time reflecting on and talking about questions larger than myself, and I feel intellectually, creatively, spiritually stimulated and satisfied every single day. I love it all—everything that this life has to offer—and I am grateful, every day, for this (extra)ordinary life that has finally found me.